30 October 2006

If you read the New York Times online...

... you might like this, the New York Times Reader. It's a stand-alone program that downloads the entire paper and then presents it on your screen in a way that is a very convincing facsimile of the print version. I've found it to work very well, even though it is in a very early beta release. Using the Times Reader instead of your web browser, the text is much easier to read and there is much less scrolling involved. Needless to say, I like it a lot. It makes one of my favorite hobbies, reading the Times, much easier and more comfortable. It is rather bandwidth and processor intensive, though my laptop has no trouble running it. Here are the system requirements:

  • Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista
  • 1Ghz processor
  • Minimum: 384 MB RAM
  • Recommended: 500 MB RAM
Bottom line, if you read the Times online frequently, this may be a useful application to check out.

More Pictures over at PicasaWeb

Click on these links or the "Kurt's Picture Page" link on the left to view the entire albums.

27 October 2006

One Sick Monkey

This picture illustrates my state of being last Sunday. I was one sick monkey. I had what French people call la grippe and what normal people call the flu. It all started with a really sore throat in the morning, general fatigue throughout the day and finally a splitting headache and high fever at night. I wouldn't have gotten any sleep at all had Esther not walked back to her parents house in the middle of the night to get some paracetamol for me. That brought my fever down and got rid of the headache enough so that I could sleep. That was good because I had to teach a class the following morning at 8am. It wasn't very much fun, but I was able to do it. The sore throat persisted for a few days and my nose is still running a bit, but I'm 95% healthy now. Needless to say, it wasn't a lot of fun and I hope that there aren't too many other Parisian flus that I have to get immunized to the hard way.

I suppose that was the big news for the week. I've been taking the time to organize some photos and post them over on my PicasaWeb page. Here are some from the Paris Auto Show:

More to come soon.

20 October 2006

Observations on France, Vol. 1

Having been in France for a month and a half I can faithfully declare that I am fully qualified to publish my wholly accurate and immensely insightful observations on said country in no less prestigious a volume than my very own blog. So without even a hint of further ado, my observations on France and the supporting evidence:

1. Some stereotypes are true.
French people eat a lot of baguettes. It's really the only type of bread that they eat on a regular basis. Also, they are bought at the corner bakery which has a line out the door, onto the sidewalk during lunch and dinner time.

The French Government regulates a lot of things. For example, the price and composition of the above-mentioned baguettes. The price is set at 0,85 euros (when writing numbers, the French invert the use of commas and decimals [1.507,24 = 1,507.24]) and there is set recipe. This isn't to say that there is only one type of bread in France, you can pay more for something else, but the price of the standard-issue baguette is set.

French people drive really small cars. After having been here for only a few weeks my sense of scale is all screwed up. I see an Audi A6 and I think it's an A8. I see a Volkswagen Golf and I think it's a minivan. It's really crazy. If you're curious, click here to see the most popular car in Paris, the Renault Twingo.

2. Some stereotypes are not true.
Not everybody walks to the market, buys fresh bread at a quaint bakery and gets their meat from the local butcher. In fact, outside of Paris, life in the suburbs is a lot like life in the US. Case in point, Auchan. It is a grocery store, but it is larger than anything I have ever seen in the US. It's big, like Costco big, but all groceries, no tires, no refrigerators, no caskets. Actually, I didn't take the escalator to the second floor so maybe they had caskets up there. But I digress, the place is huge and has everything at reasonable prices. It's just outside of Paris (nothing of the sort exists inside the city) but accessable by the metro.

The French Government is not always painfully inefficient. I had to have a medical exam to get my residency permit and I was expecting the process to take about an hour. When I arrived at the office 5 minutes before my appointment and saw six people still waiting ahead of me I adjusted the estimate to about 2.5 hours. Lo and behold it turns out that they have a pretty sophisticated system to evaluate the health of new immigrants. We were all processed through at roughly the same time, assembly line-style. We all went to get quick eye exams with one doctor, then off to the chest x-ray, then the medical history and gland examination (roughly like a shoulder massage). 35 minutes later I was walking out the door with three sheets of paper with official stamps (very important in this land) and my provisional work permit. Needless to say, I was surprised.

Since I observe things every day, expect more documented observations in the near future.

18 October 2006

Time flies when you're ridiculously busy...

Oops. So it's been nearly two weeks since I last posted. Needless to say, I haven't spent that time at the opera. Rather, Esther and I have been mega-super-ultra busy getting our new house in order. The good news is that we are almost there. Our new curtains are hanging in front of our windows, dividing the main room from the bedroom, and covering our closet. Given the number of locations in our room where we're using curtains, it was a bit difficult to pick it all out at IKEA, but the result is worth the hours spent there. I'm really pleased with how well everything goes together, despite the fact that they're all different colors and textures. Everything seems to fit where it is.

We also got a new couch, well, it's new to us. We bought it from a lady on the other side of Paris who only bought it 4 months ago. She is selling it because she is moving into a new place with a roommate after her house was broken into. The thieves kicked in the door (it was still only partly repaired when we go the couch) and started putting all of her stuff in a gym bag when they must have been scared off by someone as they left the bag on the couch (our couch now) and made off with her wallet. She was pretty shaken up, she said that she hadn't slept in the 5 days since then. The good news is that she gave us a really good deal on the couch and the rug that goes with it. Here's hoping that the thieves don't come looking for the couch they missed...

Outside of the house, both literally and figuratively, I'm now fully into my work and school schedule. Work at the high school is going really well. I'm finding that I like the job quite a bit. The students seem to like me pretty much by default. I'm much closer to their age than the real teachers, I'm American (which is generally a positive, or at least interesting, thing in their eyes), and, most importantly, I don't give them any assignments or homework. All that's expected of them in my class is that they behave and they use whatever English skills they have. All in all it is pretty easy for them and pretty easy for me.

My classes are also getting off to a good start. I feel that I was placed into the right level; I'm learning a lot but I'm not lost in the material. The professor is a very nice, very intelligent lady and the other students are generally people like me, people out of college and working. It's pretty fun although, since it is at the end of the day, it is pretty easy for my attention to wane towards the end of two hours. Also, I will have some pretty long days in the near future, getting on the Metro just before 7am and not getting back until almost 9pm, mais c'est la vie.

I'll post more interesting observations and whatnot soon. Until then, here is a picture of myself showing my attempts at integration:

07 October 2006

A Muehmel at the Opera? Quelle Horreur!

It's true, I went to the opera. Not a serious, fat-lady singing opera at this rather grandiose bulding, but a comic opera at this somewhat less grandiose building. I don't exactly remember what it was called, something about a happy widow. Let it suffice to say that I didn't really understand what was happening. It started with a bunch of artwork being paraded out on stage. Then a giant hand (maybe 12 feet long) was rolled out and remained on stage for the rest of the first act. People sat on it like a couch, in fact they called it a couch. All I could think was, "That's not a couch, that's a giant hand...." but I don't think that was the point. There was a really rich lady and a bunch of guys who wanted to marry her. There was also a portrait of some general or admiral or genrimal on the wall whose eyes blinked when peopled saluted it. I thought that was kind of funny. I also thought it was funny when the fat hairy guy ripped open his shirt. Other than those few parts, however, I was pretty much lost. I don't know why the guy with all of the prostitutes hanging out with him didn't want to marry the rich lady. I don't know why the bellhop was always drunk and I REALLY don't know why Santa Claus showed up. By the time the Picasso paintings came out and started dancing I was about ready to leave. Thankfully, that is just what we did, at intermission.

So it was not quite a big success, but I guess that's a comedic opera in a foreign language for you. Anyway, the seat was way to small for my long legs and they were impacted against the wall in front of me the entire time (we had front row in the second mezzanine, good seats!). I think that Esther's dad got the tickets for free because he is a share holder in Le Monde. Something like that, so at least we didn't lose anything on this brief excursion into the land of the cultured. I just can't promise how soon I will return.

05 October 2006

And you thought Comcast was bad...

The only way that I am able to post this now is courtesy of some unsecured wireless network from which I can get a 'Low' or 'Very Low' signal (thank you Apple Network 9a9027). We are supposed to be connecting through our own conncection, provided by a French ISP named Free. They have a really good deal that for 29.90 euros per month you get a high speed ADSL connection, unlimited telephone calls throughout Europe and North America, and a few television channels. Almost too good to be true!

Esther signed a contract with them in early September to connect with the line here. In mid-September the France Telecom telephone landline was disconnected since we were planning on having the Free line available to us. Here it is early October and they have yet to connect our line.

Another interesting quirk about France is that most phone numbers for companies are the equivalient of 900 numbers in the US. If you want to order something from a cataloge you pay 15 cents/minute. Similarly, if you want to call customer service because they didn't connect your line like they were supposed to, you pay 34 cents/minute. That is, if you are calling from a landline. Calling from a cellphone results in a whole different set of charges.

So imagine that you are trying to connect your brand new internet/telephone/TV service and you encounter a problem. Since you have disconnected your old telephone you have to use a cell phone. What happens? You spend over 6 euros for a call that lasts less than 7 minutes where the only information you get is, "Try it again tomorrow, you may or may not get a confirmation email when we have connected your line."

I guess in France the saying, "The customer is king" is accurate, but being a king in France hasn't always been the most comfortable position.

03 October 2006

Preparing Chez Nous

[To briefly wrap up that cliff-hanger that I left all of you with in my last post, Rosh Hashana went off without a hitch. It was actually quite easy for me and my, um, limited language abilities and turned out to be an all together pleasant evening. Dinner was the standard Rosh Hashana fare of apples dipped in honey, olives, pickles, fish balls with a side of fish jelly, and matzo ball soup. My vegetarian eating habits proved to be an asset for the first time in France as it allowed me an excuse to politely pass on the fish balls and jelly though Esther enjoyed both in full.]

The past weeks have been very busy and a bit stressful, mainly because of everything required to get our studio prepared for us to move in (something which we have recently done). First we had to wait for the major work in the kitchen and bathroom to be finished by the contractors, Monsieur Milo and Monsier Kovosovic, two Serbian guys, about 50-55 years old, working outside the prying eyes of the French government. It was hard not to combine their two names into Milosovic, something which they may not have appreciated.

As they drew closer to the end of their work and were using the main room less to store their tools and materials, I began my work of painting the entire place. First, of course, Esther and I had to pick colors which was relatively easy, though not free of mistakes. For the main room we wanted something very light so we went with a color that is nearly white, but has a very slight brown tint to it. Trim in that room is a beige-like color (I think it is called 'Sourdough'). The bedroom area (since there is no seperate room, just a little "cove" off of the main room, got a nice golden color called, appropriately, 'Gold Buff' and white trim. The entry way, since it is such a small space anyway and unlikely to have any exciting decorations in it, we decided to go with a light, bright yellowish-orange. It's called 'Japanese Koi' but would more accurately be named 'Kraft Cheese and Macaroni (It's the Cheesiest!).' Or maybe 'Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Crackers.' Basically, it's the color of any fake cheese product from the US. Both Esther and I like it a lot and everyone who walks in has their own reaction. Nothing worse than being boring, right?

So, for a little more than a week I went to the studio every day and painted all day long, all of the walls and the ceilings. It went generally well and the results are quite good. The quality of the paint didn't quite match that of the Behr that I'm used to in the US and, thus, some areas required up to three or four coats to get adequate coverage but in the end it's done. I'm happy not to have to go back to Batkor (the French approximation of Home Depot, where some days they are just out of masking tape) so regularly since it is invariably a 2.5 hour excursion no matter what.

After having finished painting we had a team of guys come in and refinish the floor completely. They did a really amazing job. The wood floor was in terrible shape with deep gouges, water stains, scratches, dirt, dust, and a bit of mold. They must have sanded off quite a bit because all of that is gone. Esther and I decided to go with the high-gloss finish which looks very good, but still shows some brush strokes and drips of the finish. While waiting for the smell of acetone to diminish enough that we could be in the house without our eyes watering and lungs burning we went to Ikea and picked out a bed and some other small things which we needed. These got delivered on Sunday night and we were able to spend our first night in the studio that night.

Which is not to say that the process is finished. We are currently having an electrician install more power outlets since there were originally about 5, old, ungrounded ones in the whole house (kitchen and bath included). We still need to get curtains (Ikea here we come!) and to repair some things in the one big closet. Eventually we will get a compact washing machine, a new couch, and a whole bunch of other little things. I estimate by the end of this weekend it should start to feel more like a house. Once we make the repairs in the closet we can unpack and arrange our things which will go a long way in making things more comfortable here. It doesn't quite feel like home, but I'm sure it will soon.

Once things are more settled I will take a bunch of pictures and maybe string them together into a little movie-tour of the house. Stay tuned, but it might be a few weeks yet.